IMPHAL, Manipur—”What I really want from the world is their voice against this draconian law,” says the Iron Lady of Manipur, Irom Sharmila, in a filmed statement delivered after the 15th anniversary of her ongoing hunger-strike against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).
Speaking in a labored and fragile voice worn from fifteen years of hunger, Sharmila describes her motivation for refusing to eat for fifteen years. Her hunger-strike protest began on November 2, 2000 after she witnessed Indian paramilitary massacre 10 people waiting at a bus stop and get away with it. Since AFSPA grants security forces legal impunity to commit violence while deployed in northeastern India’s state of Manipur, preventing prosecution for the massacre, she decided to resort to a nonviolent form of protest for its repeal.
Stressing that she is hunger-striking “to turn wrong governance,” Sharmila pleads with the world to join her voice against AFSPA, warning: “The absence of mass support is certain to have me face death due to starvation without fulfilling my demands.” Noting that India is vying for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, she insists the country first “needs to show the real democracy by repealing this draconian law from the Indian Constitution.”
AFSPA, a national law selectively enacted in several supposedly “troubled” Indian states, places those areas under martial law and grants security forces the power to warrantless property searches, arbitrary arrests, and deadly force on suspicion of a person. Seven of India’s 29 states currently enforce AFSPA, including Jammu and Kashmir, a northwestern state considered the most militarized zone in the world and a flashpoint for catastrophic international conflict.
Famously used by Mohandas Gandhi before the country’s independence in 1947, hunger-striking is a common form of peaceful political protest in India. Sharmila, after fifteen years, is the world’s longest hunger-striker. Nine days after Sharmila’s hunger-strike anniversary, another activist in India passed 300 days of fasting for justice. In India’s northwestern state of Punjab, the world’s oldest hunger-striker is an 83-year-old Sikh man, Bapu Surat Singh Khalsa, who has refused to eat since January 16, 2015 in demand for the release of political prisoners.
Striking a forelorn figure, Sharmila, who has spent the last 15 years caught in a repeated cycle of arrests, force-feeding, and isolation, expresses her desire to “resume my past normal life.” Condemning the arrest of her fiancé, Desmond Coutinho, a resident of Ireland who was arrested while visiting her in 2014, she says his detention “kept him in jail for 77 days under physical and mental harassment.”
Everything, Sharmila states, “has its beginning and ending,” and so she says her struggle also should have its end. “I really am tired of this way of life,” she mourns, indicating her strong desire to conclude the hunger-strike. She says local Manipuris “want me to remain a deity,” but that she is “a human being who has all desires of life.” Yet she remains committed to continuing her struggle until AFSPA is repealed.
“If my demand is fulfilled,” says Sharmila, “after I am getting married to my fiancé, Desmond, I will never stop [being] committed to social works…. I want to commit to him, with my life partner, just like a couple of peace birds to give message of hope to the world.”
In correspondence with Organization for Minorities of India, Coutinho reports that his fianceé, who is charged with attempted suicide by a Delhi court, is scheduled for a final court appearance from December 14 to 16. “It would be helpful to gather some momentum, if possible,” appeals Coutinho. Imploring unity among India’s human rights activists, he says: “I would certainly try to reach out to Bapu Surat Singh Khalsa’s family, requesting them to stand beside Sharmila in Delhi when she is sent.”
Last year, Amnesty International called for “dropping all charges of attempted suicide against Prisoner of Conscience Irom Sharmila and releasing her immediately and unconditionally.”
In her statement, however, Sharmila objects to calls for her unconditional release, saying: “The world seems to be think of me as if I am demanding for my right to death so they are just campaigning for my release without condition. They don’t bother to touch on my cause, my real hopes, which is to repeal AFSPA.”
Hello. Good morning. Thank you for giving me this chance to express myself. It is certain that I am resolved to get married after my demand is fulfilled. I think our local people want me remain as a deity, their own view, but not as a human being.
Right now, my trial is going on, and last year also. And [when] my first trial was going on, my fiancé Desmond, who is right now in Ireland, tried to assist me as my spokesperson at my trial at the court, but the defense lawyer, Khaidem, denied his intervention in my cause so strongly that he prodded local meira paibee imas to prevent him from intervening. And, with the incitement of the defence lawyer to provoke their annoyance, [Desmond] was beaten just outside the court campus by the meira paibee imas. They had him arrested on the next day on false charges. That was arrestation kept him in jail for 77 days under physical and mental harassment. Still he is planning to come this time also while my trial is still going on in Manipur’s Cheirap Court Uripok at my invitation to assist me as my spokesman at my trial. I really don’t [want] the verdict of the world about my personal life as a humanity.
What I am doing [with my hunger-strike] is just to turn the wrong governance. I just did challenge the long imposition of our law. Laws which are meant to serve us a democratic people turn against us. Why should we remain contented with wrong implication of rules?
In that sense I did step in as an interested stand but me too is a humanity, a human being who has all desires of life. And I can’t avoid, I can’t escape these senses of mine. Why should our people remain contented just seeing me as a symbol of resistance?
We also are part of the society, and society is made up of families, and I want — after getting success in my struggle — I want to resume my normal, resume my past normal life. Resume just to a simple woman. Want to taste the beauties of life. I just want to gain success — which is so rightful — with the intervention of the public. And I am really in need of their joining hands.
I know that everything has its beginning and ending. As to my struggle also, I should have ending also. One day it’s beginning. And, if my demand is fulfilled, after I am getting married to my fiancé Desmond, I will never stop [being] committed to social works which are so earnestly expected. My life partner has social problems… I want to commit to him, with my life partner, just like a couple of peace birds to give message of hope to the world [with] my experience as a long fighter for justice.
And I really want to influence the whole world against discrimination, especially against human trafficking. I really want to [be] useful to the whole world till my demand is fulfilled also.
And yet I think that the present mindset of our people continues as before. The absence of mass support is certain to have me face death due to starvation without fulfilling my demands just after my trial is finished with the verdict of the judge to release me without condition. But I really want to get success after struggling for so long. Fifteen years!
Yet the world seems to be think of me as if I am demanding for my right to death so they are just campaigning for my release without condition. They don’t bother to touch on my cause, my real hopes, which is to repeal AFSPA. [What] I really want from the world is their voice against this draconian law.
The present Indian government is so hardly trying to [get] permanent membership of the UN Security Council, but just ahead of placing this title — I mean for membership — the Indian government needs to show the real democracy by repealing this draconian law from the Indian Constitution to suit the respect[ed] terms of human rights for its people.
And I really want the world to see the real being of me. Just as if humanity has bodily witness — daily, physically, its limit — I really am tired of this way of life. Really tired. So please intervene.
I really want the verdict of the people, yes or no as to my fasting because me also is a part of the society. I am deserving of getting this verdict, and, accordingly, their reaction to the concerned government will create some positive acts to my present situation to end up my fast with my victory. Without the support of the masses how can I be fruitful in my demands? It is a mass cause. I want them to see me as a humanity not just as a tool for society’s problems.
And I [am] really worried about my fiancé’s future in case I have to die, in absence of people’s support, after the judgment of the judge at my trial. Since our people, women, [are] criticizing him in their own views since they don’t want our relationship. My personal life’s status they sometimes said that they never even in their dreams also [thought] about my turning into a romantic affair. In such a situation of me too, [I] can’t escape human love, human emotion, and him demonstrating his love, his care for me as a humanity.
How can I avoid it? So natural, we are all mortal. We come into this earth so nakedly and alone, and we will pass away alone, nakedly, without companion, any property, any title. All these material issues, titles, persons, all these things are man-made and impermanent. While we’re living in this world, what we really need to do is try in our ways to connect with each other, to depend on each other with a social personal being to prove that we are the most civilized creatures of the world. We are every source of peace and every source of changes. We are the source of happiness and beauties. I should like to control other’s lives, but until ourselves, others intervention to our personal being.
I really want the world to awake to birth and joy. I’m really displeased with the insensitiveness of the world. Our local society. Humanly. I really want to thank for giving a chance to express myself, my inner thoughts and this: to say, help the world as a temporary of this generation. Thank you very much.